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NARAL's Choice

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Friday, May 16, 2008

A few years ago, the National Abortion Rights Action League, as it was then called, or NARAL for short, changed its name to NARAL Pro-Choice America. The idea, as I understood it, was to put the emphasis on "choice" rather than "abortion." This week, the organization announced its own choice in the Democratic primary contest, and as best as I can tell, it had absolutely nothing to do with preserving abortion rights and everything to do with their own sense of self-importance. Many women I know who have given generously of their time and efforts and money to the organization over the years are furious, and I don't blame them.

If the issue is choice, and it should be for NARAL Pro-Choice America, there is absolutely no reason to prefer Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton. There's no reason to assume he will stand taller when it comes to legislative efforts to limit abortion rights or outlaw particular procedures. There's no reason to believe that he will appoint judges who will be more sympathetic to Roe v. Wade or more understanding of the plights of the poor, the young, of women from rural areas and those serving in the military (or married to men who are) and those who discover late in their pregnancies that the babies they very much wanted cannot survive. These are, of course, the women who have been targeted successfully by anti-abortion groups in recent years both in the legislatures, state and federal, and in the courts and for whom access to abortion is an abstract promise rather than a constitutionally guaranteed right. These are the women who should be the focus of all the energy, clout and attention a group such as NARAL Pro-Choice America has. That's the very reason the group exists.

But clearly, that wasn't enough for the leadership of NARAL. They wanted to be players in the presidential game. So they made a choice between two candidates who differ not at all on abortion rights, choosing to make themselves look important on a day when, having taken a thumping in West Virginia from precisely the sort of women NARAL should represent, Barack Obama was looking for friends to send a message to Hillary Clinton and the media that West Virginia didn't matter and that it was time for her to exit the race.

"What does NARAL get from Obama?" some of my friends keep asking me. What could he have promised them that would lead them to turn their back on the first woman to make a serious run for the presidency, not to mention a woman who has stood with women's rights activists throughout her career, fought for health care for women and children, and whose help they desperately will need in future fights, even if, especially if, she ends up after this election, as she was before, as an influential senator? Was all this for a platform plank on abortion? No. We, and by "we," I mean Gloria Steinem, the late Bella Abzug, Eleanor Smeal and me, with some help from Sen. Ted Kennedy (whose team, which I was leading, didn't officially call the vote but encouraged our supporters to go for it), did that in 1980, and it's been there since.

No, this wasn't about platform planks or future jobs, not as far as I can tell. It was about the Obama supporters on the board outnumbering the Clinton backers and forgetting which hats they were wearing, that they were supposed to be putting the organization ahead of their partisan pursuits, and doing what was best for the cause, not their candidate.

Does anyone care that NARAL endorsed Obama? I'm not sure voters in Kentucky or Oregon will care. I'm not sure how many uncommitted superdelegates will care. But I know this: NARAL members who support Hillary, of whom there are many, judging just from my e-mails, care a lot. They won't be supporting NARAL in the future. And if, as I fear, the major battles to come for abortion rights are likely to take place in the Senate, I sure wouldn't want to be the lobbyist from NARAL who is assigned to make sure that Hillary is willing to stand tall. Again. I know she will. But no thanks to them.

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